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Birding In The National Parks: Birding In Saguaro National Park In Summer


Will Traveler's intrepid birder, Kirby Adams, survive an August visit to Saguaro National Park and come home with a photo of a Pyrrhuloxia, a relative of Northern Cardinals, atop a cactus? Kurt Repanshek snapped this slightly fuzzy shot in the cooler month of April.

It’s no secret that we birders tend to do things a little differently than “normal” travelers. Valentine’s Day weekend at the sewage treatment plant? Getting up at 4 a.m. every morning of your vacation? Perfectly acceptable behavior for the seasoned birder.

This occurred to me last month as I was standing in sub-zero weather staring at an empty farm field in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wondering where the Sharp-tailed Grouse were. Most of my non-birding friends take February weekenders to Florida. I couldn’t feel my toes.

The depths of winter will find us headed to places like Voyageurs National Park, where many birds of the far north spend their winters. Owls are one of the main draws in the north woods in winter. Great Gray Owls, Northern Hawk-owls, and Boreal Owls are all much sought-after birds that are resident in the Voyageurs area. In the winter, young or otherwise socially subordinate owls will travel south in search of easier feeding. A snowshoe hike in northern Minnesota can reveal all three of those species, with a little luck, of course.

So, even those of us not inclined to engage in winter recreation will find ourselves in Minnesota in the winter and loving it. But winter is almost over, thankfully.

Which brings me to my main point here: Would anyone like to join me in the Sonoran Desert in the middle of summer?

I have a map of Saguaro National Park open in one tab of my browser and a travel site open in another with a list of airfares from Detroit to Tucson in August.

It should be noted that I dislike intense heat almost as much as I dislike frostbite. But I’m a birder, and southeast Arizona (SEAZ, they call it) beckons. And it beckons in summer.

The somewhat misnamed “monsoon” rains of late July and August bring life to the desert. Resident birds are more active with the local plethora of hummingbirds beginning to load up on fat reserves for migration. This is also the time that many northern species arrive to set up their winter digs, among them even more hummingbirds. As many as 17 hummingbird species are known to live in or pass through southern Arizona. That’s a stunning number to an Easterner who equates the word hummingbird pretty much solely with our good old Ruby-throated.

There are the usual desert dwellers, of course. Cactus Wrens, Pyrrhuloxia, Greater Roadrunners, and Verdin are always pleasant companions on a summer desert hike. I’m particularly interested in the Cactus Wren, a large wren that shouldn’t be too difficult to locate, yet managed to elude me for several days in south Texas last fall. My goal for this summer is to snap a photograph of a Cactus Wren on a Saguaro.

I’m also intrigued by the thought of woodpeckers like the Gilded Flicker and Gila Woodpecker drumming on the trunk of a Saguaro. Obviously we’re lacking in tree-sized cacti here in Michigan, but it still seems to me that woodpeckers belong in trees.

The Tucson Audubon Society chapter is hosting the Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival from August 14-18 this summer. Among some other amazing field trips are several to Saguaro National Park. Why not join me there and wake up to the call of the desert, the voice of the Gambel’s Quail? Just bring some sunscreen and water. We’re going to need it.

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